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The abolition of man

"Pronoun envy" or just another weapon to fight the battle against the "subjugation of women"?


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C.S. Lewis was not a very "inclusive" writer. In fact, by today's standards, he was downright exclusive. Open Mere Christianity to any random page, and you're likely to find several uses of the generic pronouns he and man. The final chapter is even titled "The New Men."

Despite its politically incorrect language, Mere Christianity stands as one of the most influential books of the past 100 years for many Christians, especially evangelicals. It is a book that has led many skeptics-of both sexes-to faith in Christ. Which raises the question-has any honest reader ever come away from Mere Christianity with the impression that Lewis's version of Christianity is "guys only"?

In a recent essay for publication with InterVarsity Press, J.I. Packer wrote about the biblical concept of the new man. Shortly before the book was headed to press, an editor changed Packer's words-and the Apostle Paul's-to read, "a new human being." The editor's reasoning was that women are excluded by the phrase "new man." After Mr. Packer firmly objected to this tinkering with Paul's theology-where becoming a new man means being transformed into Christ, not having a sex-change operation-the original wording was restored.

Since the name InterVarsity Press has been virtually synonymous with evangelical publishing, few readers would expect it to have a strict "inclusive-language" requirement. Yet the InterVarsity Press style guide, which is available publicly on the Internet, forbids the use of man, mankind, fireman, and just about every other man-based word (except woman).

In the ongoing debate over Bible translation, little mention has been made of the way new Christian books are written and edited. But, in actuality, de-manned Bibles are continuing a larger publishing trend.

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is one of the oldest theological publishers in America. Sprung from Dutch Reformed roots in Grand Rapids, Mich., Eerdmans' crop of authors includes John Stott, Phillip Yancey, and Mark Noll.

Managing editor Charles Van Hof said that while Eerdmans has no hard rule on gender language, masculine pronouns are not welcome. "Our policy was implemented by consensus, and that was way back, probably in the 1970s," Mr. Van Hof explained. "Our reason was that we agreed that exclusively masculine pronouns privileged masculine gender and we understood that to continue to use exclusive language would cause offense to many of our readers."

When asked whether authors have ever objected to this policy, Van Hof replied, "We have had authors specifically ask that we not render their language gender inclusive, and since such requests generally came from scholars whose stature entitled them to impose their will, we almost always complied. But such requests are more and more infrequent. Most of our authors submit manuscripts using gender-inclusive language. When they don't and they don't evince a preference, we quietly and professionally edit it, usually without objection."

At Bethany House Publishers in Minneapolis, a similar unwritten policy is in force. "We ask our authors and editors to avoid gender-specific pronouns wherever it is appropriate and whenever it can be done with simplicity and grace," said editorial vice president Carol Johnson.

Ms. Johnson argued that inclusive language is important because traditional, generic-masculine pronouns are no longer understood by most readers. For an example of an "outdated" word, she chose mankind. For readers over age 50, she said, "mankind clearly means all people everywhere."

But for younger readers, she claimed, "It is a word they are not used to seeing, and it creates an unnecessary distance between the reader and the text.

"We encourage inclusive language because this is the direction English is going and because when all is said and done, it is more accurate." So far, Ms. Johnson said, no authors have objected to finding "creative alternatives" to this "surprising limitation in our language."

Brazos Press, a new imprint of Baker Books, received three of the top 10 awards in the 2002 Christianity Today Book Awards. "We do not have a stated policy on gender language," said Brazos editorial director Rodney Clapp. But, "In terms of gender language referring to human beings, we do encourage authors toward inclusivity."

When asked about the philosophy behind Brazos' approach to gender language, Mr. Clapp replied, "Editorially, we affirm women alongside men in church and family leadership positions .... We accept the concern that a constantly masculine language for positions of leadership and power really can and does constrict women and the exercise of their gifts."

Mr. Clapp drew a distinction between language for God and language for man. "We certainly privilege the traditional-and inevitably 'masculine'-name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," he said. "So would most or all of our authors. Beyond that, some are open to subordinate designations that might include some feminine language. Others are not."

Even so, Mr. Clapp added, "Most of our authors are careful not to overdo masculine pronouns in reference to God. We recognize that in the past masculine language for God has sometimes been illegitimately used to reinforce the subjugation of women."

Art is the signature of man," wrote G.K. Chesterton in his classic Christian apologetic, The Everlasting Man. Today, an editor would most likely change his phrase to "Art is the signature of humanity," and the book would be retitled The Everlasting Humankind.

Happily for writers who carry on the tradition of Lewis and Chesterton, some publishers are not trendy. While not an exclusively Christian press, Spence Publishing in Dallas has carved out a niche by publishing important conservative books-many written by Christians-that few other publishers would dare to print. "Far from requiring inclusive language," said Spence's editor in chief, Mitchell Muncy, "we forbid it."

To explain his position, Mr. Muncy cited the four reasons for retaining man given by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence (see sidebar)-"etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of 'man and woman,' and literary tradition."

Mr. Muncy asked, "Does anyone really believe-really-that those who decline to use inclusive language despise women? If such reasons as Barzun's are merely a mask for bigotry, what prevents others from interpreting the reasons in favor of inclusive language as a mask for, say, the desire to impose oneself on others?"

Of the major Christian publishers contacted for this article, only one took a stance in favor of traditional English: Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, publisher of the new English Standard Version of the Bible, a translation that stands against the gender current. "We generally let the authors speak as they wish," said Marvin Padgett, Crossway's editorial vice president. "But we would discourage an aggressive gender-inclusivistic style."

As to why most other publishers encourage "inclusive language," Mr. Padgett speculated, "Maybe because they are unduly influenced by academia. After all, not even The New York Times goes as far as some publishers. Television doesn't either. Real people simply don't talk or write that way. It's only when someone stops to think about it that they engage in pronoun envy."

-Sam Torode is a freelance writer

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